Thomas Mallon: "Watergate: A Novel"
Nearly four decades have passed since the Watergate break-in. While the scandal may be ancient history to some, questions remain about events that brought down the Nixon presidency. Exactly who ordered the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters and why? Why didn’t president Nixon destroy the Oval Office tapes? And why was a politician as smart as Richard Nixon brought down by a “third-rate burglary?” Answers remain elusive despite volumes of committee records, court transcripts, and memoirs. A new novel attempts to capture the mystery at the center of the scandal. Diane talks with author, Thomas Mallon, about his fictional account of the events surrounding Watergate.
director of creative writing at George Washington University, author of seven novels, including "Bandbox," "Henry and Clara," and "Dewey Defeats Truman." Among his nonfiction books are "A Book of One's Own," "Stolen Words," and "Mrs. Paine's Garage." He's a frequent contributor to "The New Yorker," "The Atlantic Monthly," and other magazines.
Near the end of the new novel about Watergate, a fictional Pat Nixon says Watergate was enormous, colossal and it was nothing. Author Thomas Mallon joins me in the studio to talk about his imagined take on the nearly 40-year-old scandal and its legacy today. This new book is titled "Watergate: A Novel."
"It Was Ridiculous"
Mallon had his fictional Pat Nixon utter the quote above because, he said of Watergate, "It was ridiculous. "It was an act of political sabotage that was meaningless...and on the other hand, it was colossal...I think you have to, in a way, look at it both ways," he said.
"I Wanted To See This As A Novelist"
Mallon likes to look at American historical events from the perspectives of people who get swept up in them. Years ago, he wrote a book titled "Henry and Clara" about the couple who were seated in the balcony with the Lincolns on the night of the assassination. "And so I thought here was another chance to come at a big historical event somewhat obliquely, although one of my point of view characters is Nixon himself. So you can't get any more central than that, but a lot of them are people sort of on the fringes," Mallon said.
Mallon's Portrait of Nixon
Mallon calls his portrait of Nixon "wildly mixed." "I think he was a rough character in politics and had very, very sharp elbows," he said. "I think, in a way, his problem in life politically and, to some extent, maybe even personally, he didn't know how to take yes for an answer. He had finally won the presidency after losing it, after losing the governorship of California and being told that he was finished. And he was suddenly there, but he arrived at such a tumultuous time that he felt besieged. And he had the sort of personality that would take actual evidence of being besieged and magnify it. And I don't think he ever had a relaxed moment in his life," Mallon said.
A Man With Demons
Even when Nixon won his 1972 landslide victory over McGovern, Mallon is struck by accounts that he sat and watched the returns with an air of depression. "I think that often happens to people of accomplishment. You know, there's the let down when you've actually achieved something," Mallon said. "But I think this was the third time he'd run for the presidency. The first time he had lost it by whisker, the second time he'd won it by a whisker. And I think what he really wanted was another sort of thrill ride. And what he couldn't really deal with was victory easily and a victory that indicated resounding approval from the voting population or at least resounding disapproval of his opponent," Mallon said.
You can read the full transcript here.